Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I’ve worked in the world of books for over a decade, mostly in marketing, from major houses like Wiley and FSG to Amazon to my current role at the start-up Inkshares, where I’m VP of Marketing & Operations.
I’ve worked with hundreds of authors and have even been a part of getting a few books to hit the bestseller lists. For all this experience, I have yet to discover some secret formula to marketing a book. In fact, a lot of what I read online about marketing a book makes me cringe.
As soon as you start researching book marketing, you enter a world filled with hollow buzzwords, misleading get-rich-quick strategies, and heaping doses of snake oil. I know I’m talking with an author who has encountered these when I hear things like, “I heard I should ditch Twitter and start building up an email newsletter,” or “I found a PR person who promises they can make my book an Amazon bestseller,” or “I was told I should reserve a budget of $x for Facebook ads.”
My response to these comments is usually, “Maybe, but…” These might be good suggestions, or they might be a complete waste of time and money—it all depends on the book, the author and the readership. I’ve found that there’s no shortage of advice on tactics (some good, some bad), but very little on strategy and planning.
Book marketing isn’t one-size-fits-all. What you can do to market a book is pretty much infinite, and without a clear strategy and plan you can easily waste a ton of time and go broke drowning in details. There’s no obscure outlet, hidden ad campaign, special pitch or magic button that will instantly launch your book into mega-bestsellerdom. The reality is, it’s research, strategic planning, creative thinking, coordination, focus, experimentation, asking (lots of asking), getting rejected, and continuing to plow forward.
It’s also usually the last thing an author wants to spend her time doing. So I wrote this guide to share how I’ve learned to think about building an effective marketing strategy. Take it for what it is: one book marketer’s process for filling in that blank page with the title “Marketing Strategy and Plan for…”
My hope is that authors or other publishing professionals may find something in here, however small, that will help them build strong plans, create more focus, and feel confident that they’re doing all they can to generate awareness for their book.
These two questions are the foundation of everything that follows, and you should be asking them of yourself over and over in the lead-up to and after your book launch:
1) Who are your readers?
2) How can you reach them?
The answer to those questions is your marketing strategy. These are not easy questions.
Let’s go deeper on Question 1. You may have a broad sense of your readers’ interests. For example, they love science fiction, but what else are they into? What movies? What comic books? Where do they live? How old are they? Where do they buy books? Who do they follow on social media? How much are they willing to spend on what they love? The more specific you can get, the smarter you will be about how to market your book.
Here are a couple of research strategies we use at Inkshares when working on a new title:
• Find five or more competitive titles. These should have been published in the past five years, be a similar length, same genre/themes, same format, and similar price. They can’t be what we call “cultural phenomena” (Gone Girl, Game of Thrones, The Martian—those are all lottery winners). Google, Amazon, and Goodreads should be all you need to find these, but you’ll learn an important lesson in the process: there are a lot of books in the world. Heaps. Mountains of books. And all those authors are yelling as loud as they can.
• Research comp authors and use them to find your readers. “Comps,” or competitive titles, are the foundation of traditional book marketing. They help publishers position titles for their sales force. They’re used by booksellers to estimate potential sales. You should use them to learn about who your readers might be. Follow your comp authors on social media. Read what they’ve written. Review their books. See who engages with them. Follow those readers. Talk to those readers on forums. Learn about their interests. Hopefully your assumptions about your target reader will be challenged. This means you’re on the right track.
• Talk to people IRL. Yes, real people! Go to book events. Go to Cons. Attend book fairs, conferences, readings and parties. Ask why people bought the last book they bought. You might learn that your reader barely uses Facebook; she’s all about Snapchat now. Or maybe there’s crossover with heavy drinkers—which could inspire a launch event at a bar! Maybe there’s crossover with romance—buy those books and read them! Marketing is about communicating with people. Learn who they are. Meet them.
Now let’s go deeper on Question 2. You have a clear sense of who your reader is. Now how do you reach her?
Start by asking yourself: what makes you buy a book? The most likely answer is through a recommendation of someone you trust. Word of mouth is far and away the biggest seller of books. So how do you cut through the noise to get people reading and recommending your book in the first place? The answer, from our experience, is repetition and saturation.
This means that there is no one single thing that will push your book over the edge. It’s a lot of things, over and over, in a coordinated window. People need to hear about your book on social media, see your byline on an original story, come across a giveaway, read a review on their favorite blog, discover it at an online retailer, read positive customer reviews, have it recommended to them by a friend, see it in a bookstore, and more, all in a fairly short window, before they’re going to take the leap and actually spend their hard-earned money on your book.
This is why the answer to Question 1 is so important. Without understanding your reader, you’d need an army of marketers to chase down every possible opportunity. Knowing your reader allows you to narrow your efforts down to what will actually reach her. And careful research and planning can make this process manageable.
Here are some strategies we use at Inkshares:
• “Work backwards”: This is an Amazon saying that informs almost every product or business decision at that company. It means start from the customer and work backwards. For you, start from your reader and work backwards. If you know her well, put yourself in her shoes on pub day and walk through what she’s doing. What do they see on her phone when he wakes up (Twitter, The New York Times…)? What does she read when at work (Goodreads, Facebook…) What does she listen to on her commute home (NPR, The Nerdist Podcast…)? What are all the moments, in your ideal world, that get your book in front of her and make her want to buy it?
• Use comp titles to find leads. Marketers working on your comp titles have already done a lot of thinking, planning and outreach to generate awareness. Seeing who reviewed similar books, interviewed or featured similar authors, or talked about similar books on social media will uncover new leads. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Use what happened on similar books to set the foundation of your strategy, and then use those leads to build from there.
• Use comp titles to position your book. Of your comps, what did the best? What did those customer reviews say? What did they like about the book? Of similar books that didn’t do as well, what seemed to go wrong? Is there a hole that hasn’t been filled, or a new angle you are uniquely positioned to address? Understanding the marketplace of books and what did and didn’t resonate is critical for thinking about your cover, your promotional copy, and your pitches/marketing materials. If your message falls flat, you’ll never convince a media outlet to take notice and you’ll never reach your reader.
So now you should know who your reader is and how to reach her—in other words, you have your marketing strategy. Now you’re ready to build your marketing plan, which we will address next week.
This post was adapted from a post on the Inkshares blog titled “The Inkshares Marketing Guide for Quill Authors.” Quill is a “light-publishing” option on Inkshares for authors who don’t hit their full Inkshares pre-order goal.
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